After five years of being back on Virginia soil, our children’s Italian skills have faded like poppies in the summer sun. Even going back to Italy doesn’t retrigger their language memories, mostly because it’s too easy to let their parents do all the talking. So when Siena said she’d like to take classes in Italy to get some of her Italian back, I immediately took to the internet and began to research where we could send her.
She had a few requests—
1) she wanted to live with a local family, as that would give her more language experience than living on her own would
2) she wanted an art component
3) she didn’t want to be in a big city as that felt overwhelming
4) she didn’t want to be very far from wherever we were (so we’d have to go to Italy, too. Darn.)
I sent an email to an Italian language school clearinghouse, asking which schools would accept an unsupervised 16-year-old, had homestay options, and could accommodate art interest (studying, but ideally also creating art).
The website forwarded my email to all the schools at once, and for about a month, I was getting a daily sprinkle of Italian sunshine in my inbox, as schools wrote me, telling me about what they could offer. More than once I wished I was 16 and setting off to a Sicilian garden to conjugate the future tense with a distracting view of the Mediterranean sparkling between crumbling ancient Greek columns.
For a while it seemed like this would be a difficult decision, as there were several fantastic programs with different approaches to the art instruction. But then we heard from Cultura Italiana Arezzo with an offer to set Siena up with a local artist who could teach her art history as they worked in one of the artist’s mediums—paper mache, watercolor, or fresco.
Well, that sealed the deal.
Last summer, Siena worked with Lara Gastinger learning botanical watercolor and was interested in how that was different from Italian Renaissance methods. She was intrigued by the idea of learning fresco. We landed on the idea of doing frescos for week one, and watercolor for week two, but if after the first week she wanted to continue with frescos, she could do that.
Paola at Cultura Italian Arezzo was very supportive of that plan. She also assured us that she had a wonderful woman for Siena to stay with, that the apartment was close to the school, that though Arezzo is a small city it was safe and Siena would feel comfortable in no time. I can trend towards the anxious parent, especially, as it turns out, when it comes to leaving my daughter in a foreign city, and Paola was patient and reassuring.
In January, we signed Siena up for two summer weeks in Arezzo, me double checking the cost several times. How could this cost less than Gabe’s summer camp? Paola was patient with all the recalculations, too. After Siena was enrolled for a summer session, she received a language test which placed her at an early level, as expected. From attending school in Italy she knows idiosyncratic and high level vocabulary like “pencil shaving” and “shadows”, but conjugation rules are out of her wheelhouse.
We left for Italy in June. After five replenishing days in Spello, it was time to take our girl to Arezzo. That leave-taking was hard, I’m not going to lie. Siena looked wan, and though she found some measure of animation after we did a walking tour through town and she had the basic lay of the land, it still felt impossible to turn away from her eyes that beseeched us to just stay.
Given that we were preparing to drop Gabe off at a Spello day camp the next day, it occurred to me to wonder why in the world we would purposely recreate the parts of our Spello year the most threaded with suffering. Sending our kids into the unknown was hard then, and I’m embarrassed to say it was hardly less challenging now.
Luckily we got a What’s App message from Siena that evening as Keith, Gabe, and I had the second pizza at L’Orlando Furioso since our arrival. Siena’s hostess (who speaks excellent English but had wisely not let on) had invited Siena on a walk, and they had a magnificent time before heading back and having dinner together at the apartment. Siena reported that she felt happy and was looking forward to school the next day.
I was reminded that the school experience that had been so emotionally strangulating when the kids were smaller and we lived in Spello, actually served a purpose. It allowed the children to create a relationship with their experience on their own, without the buffer of their parents. Yes, that can feel scary for them, but it also invites them to take ownership and pride, which aren’t possible when we are moderating between them and their world.
After two weeks, we picked up a dazzling Siena. She looked about six inches taller, spoke without apology, and strode the Arezzo streets as if they were etched in her heart. Which in some way, they are… she has a love for this Italian town that we barely know, it whispers to her, calling her back to a home that she created.
As time has gone by, it’s become clear to me that Siena’s experience would be valuable to many teens, for reasons we just hadn’t predicted. We figured her Italian would be stronger, maybe, and that she’d learn a little about frescos and perhaps pique her interest in art history. What she got was far, far beyond anything we imagined. What she got was an experience that I believe would benefit other teenagers.
So now I offer my reasons to send your child to language school in another country. Your own country of interest may make some of these reasons untenable but will undoubtedly have their own advantages.
1) It’ll get them off their device. We had conversations with Siena before she went about how it would be a waste of money if she went to language class and then spent the rest of the day gossiping with her friends on Snapchat. She was in agreement, but it turns out not to have mattered. WiFi in Italy is spotty at best. So she didn’t have her device to rely on for companionship anyway. Instead she walked a lot and listened to Italian music. She took her hostess’s dogs for walks, she strolled through churches with her art teacher on weekends, she routinely left her phone behind.
2) Cost. It’s inexpensive enough to allow them to pay for a chunk of it (Siena paid for half out of her savings from providing childcare at our Quaker Meeting), thus giving them ownership of their own process. And a sense of accomplishment that this wasn’t handed to them, they have a stake in the process and in their ultimate experience.
3) Self-sufficiency. We are too apt to solve our children’s problems, and they are too apt to rely on friends to tell them what the physics homework is or where to meet for band practice. In a new environment, they have to figure sh!t out. Relatedly, Siena had to learn to budget her money. We estimated what she’d need daily, gave her extra for a cooking class or train tickets, and a back-up envelope of just-in-case money. She did well enough to be able to buy herself a new dress “for being a star” (so add in her increased ability to praise herself) with all the money she saved daily, and in the end not only still had all her back-up cash, but also a significant stockpile from her accumulated daily savings.
4) Deepening a sense of self. Being on their own allows teens to develop a sense of themselves in this foreign environment, which coupled with language and maybe another interest that matters to them, creates a sturdier sense of self and who they are in the universe. Children who know who they are, who feel that strongly, are less likely to make risky and problematic choices.
5) Exploring new internal ground. If you can add in an interest your teen has, it can underscore that interest, develop it in ways you might not have predicted. Siena’s fresco experience was exactly like that. She ended up loving the process—the spreading the lime, the learning about stalactite dust, the making paints from minerals available in the Renaissance. She loved it so much that she wound up abandoning the proposed second week of watercolor so she could do another fresco. I have to tell you, I expected her to come home with frescos of triangles. After all, I read the Agony and the Ecstasy, I know how laborious and finicky the fresco process is. So when she sent us her initial work, we were gobsmacked. We were so grateful for What’s App to allow her to easily send us photos, and also grateful for Laura, her teacher, who not only took photos, but also made her a video that she sent us after Siena’s time in Arezzo (posted at the end here). It should be said that fresco is an interest that’s hard to continue here in the States. All of our attempts to hook her up with projects or lessons have fallen miserably flat. But the bright side is, we may need to return to Italy next summer so that she can take more lessons or possibly get involved with some restoration work (we’re still putting out feelers, Siena’s hostess in Arezzo has been particularly helpful).
6) Meeting adults. Developing relationships with new adults is great training for this thing called life. It’s too easy to move in circumscribed suburban circles. Getting pushed into having to introduce ourselves to strangers, to develop relationships with them without the crutch of the syllabi and soccer training drills, takes a skill set that benefit teens. Jobs, volunteer opportunities, college interviews–they all involve talking to strange adults. It’s good to demystify that process.
7) Language learning (obviously, you’d think this would be first!). Siena was hoping to get a modicum of her language learning back, but in fact she’s farther along now than when we left Italy after our yearlong sojourn. The classes were on the easy side for her, but that was a benefit as it gave her the confidence she needed to speak. She also had never had the experience of being in a class filled with people eager to learn. She loved her teacher’s easy way of getting people learning and talking, and found herself participating far more than she would have expected. Plus, there was this unexpected tidbit—I pictured the language school would be entirely populated with retired couples from Ohio. But instead, people were from everywhere—Brazil, Slovakia, China. The only common language they had was Italian. So when Siena went out to dinner with the Slovakian woman, they could only speak in Italian. And when the school went on a daytrip to nearby Poppi, their guide only had Italian as a way to communicate the history and characteristics of the town. Plus living with a woman who only spoke to Siena in Italian; her comprehension soared to near 100% and her speaking ability grew far beyond her expectations. She is justly proud of that.
8) Alone time. As a middle child, Siena doesn’t have much experience being alone. At first, it was disconcerting to go to restaurants alone and walk through town alone and recline on the castle grounds alone. But then something funny happened. Siena realized she enjoyed her own company. I can’t even count all the ways teenagers lives would be different if they only enjoyed their own company, can you? There are (sadly) unhealthy ways that teens fill the void, the silence of their own thoughts, but even the normative ones can be unhealthy if they don’t leave space for teens to learn to listen appreciatively to their own minds and follow their own leadings. I can’t even imagine how my life would have been different if I’d valued my own company at 16. This took some getting used to, but within a few days, Siena was completely comfortable scoping out restaurants, confidently asking for a table for one, and then sketching to the tune of her own thoughts. Waiters would comment on her drawing and she’d pass a pleasant meal, on her own.
9) Opening the world. Without us there showing her what to look at and shuttling her from place to place, Siena’s vision widened. She took in more, had it make sense in her own way. Her sense of the opening and possibility of the world around her was further heightened by all those previously mentioned other foreigners. Her teacher did a great job having all the students share their experiences both inconsequential and fundamental in their home countries. How interesting that Siena’s understanding of Brazilian politics is through the lens of her Italian vocabulary.
10) Increase competence. This is what 1-9 add up to. For a teen to watch herself turn an unknown into a known, to learn to increase her flexibility and awareness of the world around her. To get comfortable being alone, and also comfortable with strangers whose world views are utterly different. To gain and deepen valued skills, like language and art and budgeting. Put these altogether and your teen is likely to emerge from her time abroad stronger, more self-assured, and more confident in her abilities. And that is worth everything.
Have you ever sent your teen to language school? Any places they would like to go? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if you like this post, please share it!